Recently, ABR received the following question about the number of Israelites that left Egypt in the Exodus. Dr. Bryant Wood replies.
In several places, the Bible seems to suggest that the Israelites involved in the Exodus and Conquest numbered more than two million people (e.g., Ex. 12:37; Num. 1: 46; Num. 26: 51).
This figure seems extraordinarily large and skeptics often cite it as proof of the biblical account's inaccuracy. I know that various solutions have been offered, by James Hoffmeier amongst others, but there appears to be insurmountable difficulties with taking the texts at anything other than face value.
Is there archaeological evidence that the Promised Land received such a large influx of people during the period under discussion?
I would appreciate any perspective you might give me on this problem.
Thank you for the question: “Is there archaeological evidence that the Promised Land received such a large influx of people during the period under discussion?”
The number of Israelites who left Egypt at the time of the Exodus is a vexed problem. It is possible, however, to make a rough estimate. Following the Conquest, 1406–1400 B.C., in the subsequent Late Bronze II period (14th and 13th centuries), the urban population in the highlands where the Israelites settled remained approximately the same as it was prior to the Conquest (Gonen 1984: Table 4). Based on highland burials, however, which includes both urbanites and non-urbanites, the population seems to have increased from the pre-Conquest period to the post-Conquest period (Gonen 1992: Table 5). The overall population is difficult to access. We do not have estimates for the Late Bronze I and II periods, but an estimate of the highland population for the previous Middle Bronze II period is ca. 65,000 (Broshi and Gophna 1986: Tables 1, 2, 6, 7,10, 11). Another possible way to estimate the number of Israelites who left Egypt is by means of the number of captives the Egyptians acquired in Canaan four years after the Exodus, which amounted to ca. 100,000 (Wood 2008:105–106).
At the heart of the issue is the meaning of the Hebrew word eleph. It is usually translated “thousand,” but has a complex semantic history. The word is etymologically connected with “head of cattle,” like the letter aleph, implying that the term was originally applied to the village or population unit in a pastoral-agricultural society. From that it came to mean the quota supplied by one village or “clan” (Hebrew Mišpāḥā ) for the military muster (Malamat 1967: 135). Originally the contingent was quite small, five to fourteen men in the quota lists of Numbers 1 and 26, as shown by Mendenhall (1958). Finally the word became a technical term for a military unit of considerable size, which together with the use of the same word for the number 1,000 has tended to obscure its broader semantic range. See also Humphreys 1998 and 2000, and Hoffmeier 2005: 153–59.
I hope this helps.
Bryant G. Wood
Editorial note: It should be emphasized that the number of elephs recorded in the Bible that departed from Egypt is without error and infallible. The issue is not whether the Bible is wrong. The issue is determining what the original Hebrew text means and translating those figures into English in a way that most accurately reflects the original meaning.
Recommended Resources for Further Study
Broshi, Magen, and Gophna, Ram
1986 Middle Bronze Age II Palestine: Its Settlements and Population. Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 261: 73–95.
1984 Urban Canaan in the Late Bronze Period. Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 253: 61–73
1992 Burial Patterns and Cultural Diversity in Late Bronze Age Canaan. Winona Lake IN: Eisenbrauns.
Hoffmeier, James K.
2005 Ancient Israel in Sinai (New York: Oxford University).
Humphreys, Colin J.
1998 The Number of People in the Exodus from Egypt: Decoding the Very Large Numbers in Numbers I and XXVI. Vetus Testamentum 48: 196–213.
2000 The Numbers in the Exodus from Egypt: A Further Appraisal. Vetus Testamentum 50: 323–28.
1967 Aspects of Tribal Societies in Mari and Israel. In XVe Rencontre Assyriologique Internationale: La Civilsation de Mari. Les Congrès et Colloques de l’Université de Liège. 42.
Mendenhall, George E.
1958 The Census Lists of Numbers 1 and 26. Journal of Biblical Literature 77: 52–66.
Wood, Bryant G.
2008 Recent Research on the Date and Setting of the Exodus. Bible and Spade 21: 97–108.